Lead - copper bullets and deer control

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Mark Avery's blog

I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!

Lead - copper bullets and deer control

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James Marchington's blog is always worth a glance but his recent post on the lead issue is well worth reading.  I've always thought that he is open-minded - after all, he posts comments on this blog sometimes, presumably after reading it! - and his blog backs up that view.  Thank you James for being a reasonable voice on many issues.  So, since James (in a comment on this blog) asked for the evidence of efficacy of copper bullets in deer control, to help inform the conversation, I am pleased to give it here.

There's not a lot of lead flying around on our nature reserves (I'll come back to that) but there is deer control - lethal control - on a few of our 200+ nature reserves.  Some of those dead deer have then entered the human food chain as venison and so as far back as May 2008, when we learned of the fragmentation of lead bullets and shot in carcasses (see previous posts) we began to think about whether we should move away from lead ammunition to non-toxic alternatives.   And if we should, then what this would mean in practical terms for, for example, deer stalkers on a few of our reserves.

So we trialled the use of copper bullets on our land.  Three sites, two in Scotland and one in southern England, were involved.  We found that copper bullets were perfectly viable alternatives to lead ones - the full paper was published last year and is available for all to read here.  These results were also reported to a deer Management Conference of the Deer Initiative in Kenilworth on 13 March and was given a perfectly good write-up in the Shooting Times soon afterwards. 

On the RSPB site referred to as Scotland 1 in this paper we have now used over 500 copper bullets and those who use them report no problems - they would not be happy to switch back to lead ammunition now.  Interestingly, a local gunsmith from whom we purchase ammunition reports that 'American hunters have now moved in a big way to copper ammo. Not for toxic reasons, but because they are 'better' bullets.'.

We aren't firing ammunition over our nature reserves all the time so why do we do it at all? In Scotland, we are trying to restore large areas of native pine woodland at sites such as Abernethy Forest - the area  around the famous Loch Garten osprey nest.  High deer numbers prevent the restoration of that habitat.  But why don't we just fence out the deer?  Well, in some places we do try that but in fact we have been taking down deer fences on our land - particularly those inside the forest itself - and encouraging others to do the same.  The reason for that is that deer fences are incredibly effective killers of capercaillie and other wildlife. 

The capercaillie is a very large woodland grouse which has declined dramatically in numbers.  It's one of the species we fear will be affected by changing climate, and is affected by wet summers already, in addition to disturbance, predators and a range of other factors.  Restoring large areas of good habitat will help the capercaillie cope with all these threats and will be great for red squirrels, Scottish crossbills and the whole range of species that makes Abernethy so important for wildlife.   So we are keen to expand the forest into places where it used to be but was cut down or burned in historic times.  And that's why we are culling deer - to allow the trees to regenerate to provide more great habitat for a whole range of species.

Let's get back to basics - lead is a nasty poison.  The evidence that this poison is widely distributed in tiny fragments in deer carcasses shot with lead bullets is a matter of potential concern to human health.  The RSPB has been using lead bullets (like almost everyone else who culls deer) for many years but when we learned of the evidence of bullet fragmentation we rapidly moved to investigate safe practical alternatives.  We investigated those alternatives in a scientific manner and published the results last year.  On the basis of this evidence RSPB Council agreed to phase out the use of lead ammunition on our nature reserves and we are carrying out that programme now.  We have been open with what we have done and have shared the evidence with shooting organisations throughout the last two years.  I would hope that it would be difficult to describe our approach as anything other than timely, responsible and scientific - can the same be said for that of the shooting community who have a much greater responsibility on this subject?  Let us hope that wise heads prevail.

 

Comments
  • Hi Nightjar James is someone I  admire for his stance on raptors which must carry weight in the shooting community although personally I would rather watch than shoot,but I think he has made it plain as I understand it that he has a strong personal opinion that he is not anti lead but for his journal he will take a neutral stance and make it clear when his personal opinion is expressed.Certainly not a man frightened to express his opinion.  

  • Its brave of James to come out and say it - he sensibly doesn't present it as an opinion, more a prediction and I'm sure he's right.

    But the RSPB experience with copper came as a complete surprise to me - hadn't realised you were doing it and what a tremendous lead (sorry) you have given - well done ! It is a really big step forward to eliminating lead from deer control at least.Your team at Abernethy are top professionals and what RSPB and the neighbouring Forestry Commission Glenmore forest have achieved in controlling deer and promoting Caledonian Pine forest regeneration is brilliant - especially as many critics said it couldn't be done.

  • Hi Mark well I think that it is good that  the RSPB take this stance on lead bullets if only to avoid a court case in future but think it is upto the government to ban it surely if it is dangerous to human health,hope we do not find in future that build up of copper that wildlife has picked up has done a lot of damage.Must say lots of my friends seem to eat lots of lead shot game over lots of years and are old but very robustly healthy so I find it very surprising that the lead does not seem to have had any apparent effect.